Director: Simon Curtis
Duration: 107 minutes, I suppose
Domhnall Gleeson is a good actor, isn’t he? Between exuding pure evil as General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and embodying honour and dignity as Andrew Henry in The Revenant (2015), Gleeson manages to be captivating while portraying a facsimile of human emotion as Ash in Black Mirror (2013). Gleeson’s performance is integral to Goodbye Christopher Robin, a film not so much about the creation of iconic children’s story, Winnie the Pooh, as it is about the domestic destruction it leaves in its wake.
Gleeson plays A.A. Milne, author and playwright, struggling to reintegrate into civil society in London after returning from the First World War. Still known as “shell shock” at the time, PTSD was still not understood by those who did not experience it, and arguably still isn’t. Goodbye Christopher Robin wisely doesn’t label the condition. It is explained through Gleeson’s reactions to noises—specifically loud bangs and buzzing—that take him back to the gunfire and flies hovering around the corpses. At one point he remarks that it was not the flies that bothered him, it was that they used to be maggots feasting on the flesh of his fallen comrades. Suddenly Eeyore has a reason to be sad.
Milne is married to Daphne (Margot Robbie), a socialite with a sharp sense of humour, but also acute demands. When Milne’s condition gets in the way of his writing, she ups and leaves because if he does not write, he will become unbearable. Un-bear-able? No? Robbie’s performance as “Mrs Milne” has her using a more consistent accent than her part in Suicide Squad (2016) and allows her to be a seething tyrant underneath her soft exterior.
Will Tilston, yet to be assigned his own Wikipedia page, plays the young Christopher Robin Milne, affectionately called “Billy Moon” without any affection shown beyond that by his parents, as a child to a writer might be. Tilston is appropriately adorable and endearing, as Billy seeks to develop stronger relationships with a distant father and an omnipresent mother. His healthiest and most nurturing relationship is with his nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), who seems to age throughout the film. She has the line of the film when she finally speaks up for herself, and Billy.
A.A. Milne wants to publish a book on the horrors of war. No one wants to read about that, his publisher informs him. The money is in making people laugh after such an atrocity. It is an atrocity too many people are willing to forget, and even the peaceful landscape of the family’s new home in the woods—adopted to escape the hustle, bustle, and bangs of the city—forces Milne to forget on how easily chaos is pushed aside by those who don’t have to carry it forward with them. Billy, who is left alone in Milne’s care for a few days, inevitably needs attention, and Milne’s only tool for engaging with him is his imagination. Luckily for Milne, that’s the greatest tool for engagement there is, and he, Billy, and Milne’s friend, Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore) write Winnie the Pooh together.
Although Milne’s book skyrockets to success, the authenticity of the story hits very close to home, and the real Christopher Robin, who doesn’t even identify as Christopher Robin, finds himself in a world of strangers who want a piece of his bear; of his childhood; of his world. Adults often forget how to put themselves in children’s shoes. We often forget that the world is full of endless possibilities at certain ages, and we’re too keen to put walls up and bulldoze the forests of the imagination. We can move so fast we can often forget how boring a world without play is, replacing it with praxis, which serves a different purpose. Neither of Billy’s parents realise what they do to their son by forcing him to dress up and play Christopher Robin, and half the time Billy doesn’t know what they’re doing to him either. Too many parents talk; not enough listen.
There are beautiful relationships in Goodbye Christopher Robin, and some tragic ones. There is selflessness and generosity. There is imagination and the suffocation of it. There is war and there is peace. I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of this film, but I can speak to it as being more interesting than a simple film about the making of Winnie the Pooh would have been. In many ways, this is the only story to tell about the making of Winnie the Pooh. A post-war world called out for innocence, and it came at the cost of a child’s.
I’m somewhat surprised to discover that Goodbye Christopher Robin has already received mixed reviews. I can understand why some would find it unfulfilling. It never finds any consistent place to rest, and is neither a story of success nor failure. It’s a story about how bleak things can be, and how there is always a little bit of light somewhere. It can be Eeyore or Pooh, I suppose. I think it’s worth seeing, if just to marvel at how Domhnall Gleeson can crack you up with a simple twitch of his mouth. Or to reflect on how cruel we can be to our own children, even as we give them everything we think they want.